Elsewhere, Mike Leach's Texas Tech Red Raiders, using an innovative aerial assault that has been shattering NCAA records for several years now, threw for 520 yards in a Holiday Bowl upset of fourth-ranked Cal; Auburn, after going 8-5 the previous season with virtually the same offensive personnel, rode new coordinator Al Borges' West Coast expertise to a 13-0 season. Even Nebraska, the standard-bearer for traditional power football for more than 40 years, brought in former Oakland Raiders head coach Bill Callahan to install a more modern, West Coast scheme.
The shootout pose: Texas Tech wideout Marquis Johnson emulates his offense.
"There's been a big shift in terms of philosophy and what coaches are incorporating in their offense from what we saw when we came here nine years ago," said Purdue coach Joe Tiller, one of the earliest practitioners of the spread. "I don't know of anyone in the Big Ten that doesn't run some form of a one-back offense now. I suspect that may be accurate nationally as well."
More change is in store this year, as Meyer has taken his unique "spread-option" to Florida, the same school where another noted offensive innovator, Steve Spurrier, took the SEC by storm 15 years earlier. Spurrier himself is back in the college game as well after a four-year absence, taking his one-of-a-kind "Fun 'n' Gun" attack to South Carolina. And Clemson has hired former Toledo offensive coordinator Rob Spence -- nicknamed the "Mad Scientist" for his frenetic spread offense, which ranked in the top 20 nationally the past four seasons -- to reenergize its attack.
Another potentially intriguing subplot for 2005 involves the number of teams jumping on the Utah/Meyer bandwagon. Though spread offenses have been popping up with increasing frequency in college football since the late '90s, Meyer's high-profile success last season at such an unlikely destination has prompted a number of schools -- including Oregon, New Mexico, Purdue and Missouri -- to install all or parts of his scheme this season. Even Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, one of the game's original offensive gurus, had his staff study Bowling Green's offense this spring.
"A lot of these guys are creating their own offenses," said Spurrier. "Anyone who is consistently successful -- you have to look at what they're doing, because you might be able to get some ideas. I don't think you can really just copy [everything], but you can copy a play or two and adopt it to what you do. "
The spread and West Coast are just the latest in a long cycle of offensive crazes that have dotted college football's evolution. From the single wing, to the T-formation, to the wishbone, to the Run 'n' Shoot, enterprising offensive coaches have constantly searched for a new wrinkle that might give them an advantage over defenses. The offensive innovations on offense are often a direct response to systemic changes in defensive philosophy. The recent advent of the spread, for instance -- which began to surface more frequently in the late '90s and has boomed in popularity ever since -- is viewed by many coaches as a necessary means to combat the complex, NFL-style blitz packages that have pervaded the college game over the past decade.
"Linebackers and safeties are more athletic than they were [10 years ago]," said Tiller. "Defensive coaches and players lick their chops if they see you line up in a more conventional formation. It means they don't have to defend as much of the field, and they don't have to run as much."
It's also no coincidence that many of the game's more modern offenses are built around quarterbacks who can run. They don't necessarily have to be blazing speedsters in the mold of Michael Vick or Vince Young. But, as Utah did with Alex Smith last season, every team from Texas A&M (Reggie McNeal), to Oregon (Kellen Clemens), to Michigan State (Drew Stanton), to Northwestern (Brett Basanez) now has a trigger-man who at least presents a threat to take off if defenses get too aggressive.
"In the old days, we were able to get by without a guy who can move, but with the way defenses have progressed, if you have an immobile kid back there, it really hurts you," said Michigan State head coach John L. Smith, who brought the spread to Idaho, Utah State and Louisville before arriving in East Lansing. "From a defensive standpoint, you used to be able to get away with not covering the QB. Now if you've got an athletic guy back there who you have to account for on every play, that puts a lot of pressure on you defensively and opens up the game a lot."